There are many ways to attack the termination clause in an employment contract.
I am now surprised if employee counsel does not claim that their client’s termination clause is not legally enforceable – usually because the termination clause does not allegedly comply with the Employment Standards Act.
This blog considers a case, McKercher v Stantec Architecture Ltd., 2019 SKQB 100, where an employee successfully attacked the termination clause in his contract because he did not explicitly agree to it after being promoted.
In 2006, Mr. McKercher commenced employment as a staff architect. The termination clause in his employment contract stated:
Termination other than for cause will be with notice or pay in lieu of notice, based on your length of service. If the Employer terminates your employment for other than just cause you will receive the greater of:
- a) Two weeks notice or pay in lieu of notice during the first two years of employment increasing by one week for each additional completed year of employment to a maximum of three months notice or pay in lieu of notice.
- b) The minimum notice of termination (or pay in lieu of notice) required by applicable statutes.
Eleven years later, when Mr. McKercher was employed as a Business Centre Sector Leader, his employment was terminated. The employer paid him the three months termination pay he was owed under his employment contract.
Another way to attack a termination clause: What is the changed substratum doctrine?
An Ontario judge in a 2012 case, MacGregor v National Home Services, 2012 ONSC 2042 (CanLII), described this legal doctrine as follows: “The changed substratum doctrine … provides that if an employee enters into an employment contract that specifies the notice period for a dismissal, the contractual notice period is not enforceable if over the course of employment, the important terms of the agreement concerning the employee’s responsibilities and status has significantly changed.”
The rationale for this doctrine has been described by one judge in Schmidt v AMEC Earth & Environmental Ltd., 2004 BSCS 2012 (CanLII) as follows: “In my view, it was incumbent on the defendants to advise Mr. Schmidt that they intended to continue to rely upon the termination provision set out in the Agreement when substantial changes in his employment occurred. This would have allowed him to consider the matter and to negotiate for other terms. If the defendants wished to continue to rely on the termination provisions there ought to have been a ratification of the provisions as the nature of Mr. Schmidt’s employment changed.”
The judge hearing this case relied on the following factors when deciding not to enforce the termination clause in the employment contract: ”…there is no evidence that (the employer) made it clear to the (employee) that the notice of termination provisions were intended to apply to the positions to which he was promoted. The employment agreement contains no express wording to this effect, nor does it contain any wording to support the inference of such an intent. Further, and in keeping with the analysis in Schmidt, the Court received no evidence that, as it promoted the plaintiff, SAL reasserted its understanding and expectation that the notice of termination limit would remain in effect.” As such, the judge determined that Mr. McKercher was entitled to 12 months of reasonable notice. In total, he was awarded $143,467.00 in damages.
Lesson to be learned:
An employer should make it clear that the termination clause in an employment contract applies when an employee is promoted. This expression of this intent should be in writing and should be clear and unambiguous. I recommend that an organization’s employment contract be reviewed by an employment lawyer every year or two. If your employment contract does not address this issue then think about doing so the next time it is reviewed.
For 30 years, Doug MacLeod of the MacLeod Law Firm has been advising employers on all aspects of the employment relationship. If you have any questions, you can contact him at 416 317-9894 or at [email protected]
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The issue of whether a termination clause limits an employee’s entitlement to the minimum notice set out in the Employment Standards Act may be the most litigated issue in employment law over the past 5 years.